Lots of students have roommates. Lauren Dwyer, a grad student at Ryerson University in Toronto, shares her space with BB-8, the rolling bot from Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
Dwyer has been living alongside BB-8, and studying it, for the past two months. Made by Colorado-based tech company Sphero, it's only slightly larger than the palm of my hand. It zips wirelessly around the room, controlled by a mobile app, and responds to requests for it to "look around!" and "go to sleep!" The app can also record video messages for BB-8 to play back. Watch through your phone, and it will appear as if the messages are being projected by the droid like in the Star Wars movies. Sphero calls BB-8 a "companion," not a toy, and it has become the new BFF to hordes of wannabe Jedis since hitting the market in late 2015.
Befriending a real-life BB-8 is more than just obsessive Star Wars fandom. At Ryerson, the Faculty of Communication and Design is studying the BB-8 replica to determine whether robots can help treat anxiety, which affects 5 percent of the country's population and is especially prevalent among young people, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association.
Dwyer is interested in BB-8's modes of communication. She's been keeping track of the ways in which the robot employs beeps and gestures to express human emotions, like curiosity and frustration. This collection of beeps and squeals, she believes, is one reason why it might be more comforting than an opinionated friend or a stone-cold therapist.
"Words can trigger anxiety," Dwyer said. "A word that feels calming to one person might be upsetting to another." Since the robot interacts using abstract noises, there aren't any pre-programmed phrases to worry about, which could provoke negative feelings.
Combined with BB-8's cute factor, the user's ability to manipulate the bot's emotions through a command menu that includes "joy" and "affirmation," is what could cause the robot to comfort those with anxiety, Dwyer told me. "Users can control BB-8's emotions to respond to their personal feelings, which will help them feel calm and level."
Unlike consolation from another human, whether it's a doctor or a friend, the bot's responses are predictable and simple. "Sometimes when you're suffering from anxiety, you can't be around people," Dwyer said. "That's when the robot would come in handy."
Robots are expensive, but so are private therapy sessions
Other studies have looked at robots as a coping method for people with mental health issues. In 2003, Japanese researchers introduced PARO, a plushie-like mechanical seal whose cuddly, interactive features are designed to help people cope with dementia and Alzheimer's. Next there was Popchilla, a huggable blue alien that teaches children with autism how to read the emotional cues of others. Past studies suggest these robots are working. In a 2013 study at a nursing home in Indiana, elderly patients with dementia engaged more frequently with other residents after regularly interacting with PARO.
Robots are expensive, but so are private therapy sessions in Canada, where they aren't always publicly paid for. BB-8 and Popchilla cost about as much as a single session, which can run up to $150 (and must often be booked a year in advance). Both therapy and a helper robot are a steep expense for the many low-income families affected by anxiety disorders. PARO is even pricier than the others: the friendly sea mammal is about a $6,000 setback.
BB-8's capacity to treat anxiety has not yet been tested on humans, Dwyer said. She will be evaluating other robots, including the soccer-playing, human-shaped NAO robot, before using the data to develop her own therapy android in the next few years.
She cautioned that neither BB-8, nor any robot, should be a person's sole coping tactic. "This isn't meant to be the substitution for a caregiver, therapy, or medication," she said. "It's meant to act as a supplement that can assist with a person's day-to-day life."
That will come as good news to any mental health care worker who might worry that his or her job will eventually be replaced by a friendly bot.